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English learn to live with defeat

IN SALVADOR

Keir Radnedge

England first played at the World Cup finals in Brazil in 1950. The fathers of the game had been outside world federation Fifa during the inaugural years of 1930, 1934 and 1938.

But after the Second World War they rejoined Fifa, headed their qualifying group and arrived in Brazil as joint favourites along with the hosts. (It all ended badly for both but those are other stories for other days.)

England returned to Brazil eight days ago in a contrasting context. This time around they were certainly not favourites. The excited, over-confident level of expectation that usually accompanies the Three Lions was absent. Indeed, many fans back home doubted England’s ability even to claw their way out of Group D and into the knockout stage.

The reasons are many and varied.

Memories still linger of South Africa 2010 when England were badly beaten in the second round by a German team with greater pace and style and who even had youth on their side; England were outclassed again by Italy in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals (even though they lost only on penalties); and the matchless drama of the Premier League owes just about everything to the foreign stars who inhabit it and not the home-grown heroes who are few and far between.

Even England manager Roy Hodgson had fed the pessimists in deliberately selecting a clutch of younger players with the aim of building a team for the long term, certainly a term beyond this World Cup.

Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and teenage reserve left back Luke Shaw are all learners at this level. Everyone knows it.

Thus, unusually, the 2-1 defeat by Italy in the fascinating Amazonian capital of Manaus was not greeted with the usual howls of grief which generally accompany an England defeat. Journalists on the ground and television-fixated fans back home were in general agreement: England could take a measure of pride and hope from defeat.

Very possibly, this measured reaction was enhanced by the knowledge that Uruguay — England’s next opponents — had played poorly in succumbing to a shock 3-1 defeat earlier on against Costa Rica. The Celeste will need far more than “merely” the return against England of knee-injury convalescent Luis Suarez to change their fortunes.

Wounded pride may be the Uruguayan quality that England will need to beware the most. In 1950, Uruguay shocked the entire host nation by defeating Brazil in the final.

They have not flown north this time with serious ambitions to win the World Cup but their fans do expect them to go a long way. Falling out at the group stage would be a disaster.

Brazilian fans, of course, will be supporting England against Uruguay. There is no love lost between the South American neighbours, because of 1950. As one fan texted in to a local World Cup TV show: “Bye Bye Uruguay. Hahahah!”

So England need to take great care. A reasonable performance against Italy means little. Centre backs Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka look fragile together; Leighton Baines, at left back, was turned every which way by Azzurri winger Antonio Candreva; captain Steven Gerrard was below par in midfield; and Wayne Rooney lacked impact in attack.

Add to that the draining conditions, the energy expended in chasing the game in vain and the cramp that struck down forwards Daniel Sturridge and Sterling. England will need fresh legs to turn their fortunes around.

Gerard Houllier, former France manager who heads up Fifa’s technical study group, made the point earlier in the day, saying: “Freshness is a key criterion and ingredient for success… because speed and power combined with a high level of skill plays an important part in a big competition.”

A common perception of the Premier League is that the physical demands are higher than those of any league in any other major country. Not that Robin van Persie or Yaya Toure or Oscar appeared to be suffering any hangovers from a tough old English season.

Back in 1950, England were knocked out in the group stage, notably because of a shock 1-0 defeat by a bunch of United States part-timers. This time around England’s fate will be decided by a last group match against Costa Rica.

Eerily, the match will be staged in Belo Horizonte where England, 64 years ago, effectively crashed out of the World Cup after losing to the Americans.


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